I’ll admit…my true nature is that of an ambivert. This means that I vacillate between a thriving, energized feeling when surrounded by lots of people (preferably those with ADHD) and the contradictory need to be alone with my own thoughts and mind.
Up until recently, my life easily allotted this balance. I interacted with so many wonderful ADHD people, facilitators and students in the virtual classes teaching at the iACTcenter and working as a professional ADHD Life Coach. And then when I went out into the world on my daily walks, I became energized by my fascination with people and their story. My children characterize me as “never meeting a person who didn’t become a friend.”
However, since this pandemic, I have found myself isolating. Not wanting to go out into the world. Lacking my normal curiosity and excitement when meeting someone new.
In fact, it all feels a bit overwhelming as I look into their eyes over their face covered mask. The alone time isn’t feeling as satisfying either.
I know part of my discomfort is because as humans we are hard wired to read faces as a survival skill. I had no idea how much I used these visual cues to know “friend or foe.” I am feeling a deep loss of connection to others and sensing something else…and I wonder if you are feeling it too? Waves of fear, isolation, and uncertainty?
People with ADHD are known for their empathy. The magazine Psychology Today defines empathy as “the experience of understanding another person from their perspective.” To be strongly attuned to what another person is feeling. To being highly sensitive or intuitive to one’s environment and the emotions of others. Even to feel what others feel. People with a lot of empathy, or empaths have a compelling desire to heal and help. Often to the emotional detriment of themselves.
Empathy can play a significant positive role in many aspects of our lives and relationships. It’s more than just listening. It’s identifying with someone’s feelings. The result? The other person feels understood.
Scientific studies provide evidence for empathy, focusing on the existence of mirror neurons in the brain. These neurons enable us to read and understand each other’s emotions by filtering them through our own (Iacobani, 2008). Neuroscientist and psychologist, Abigail Marsh describes in her book The Fear Factor (2017) the differences in the brains of people who are highly empathetic. In a nutshell she found that empathic people, feel and are motivated to respond to the fear of others as if it were their own.
For many with ADHD, empathy is a strength or super power they never realized they had…because it doesn’t often feel that way. Instead they get overwhelmed. Imagine themselves in a traumatic situation they hear about. Most will spend a great deal of time and mental energy worrying about upsetting or offending people and trying to keep everyone happy.
Empathic people with ADHD describe walking into a room and “feeling it”. Sensations others seem oblivious to. Students who having prepared well for an exam, get into their classroom and feel an overwhelming sense of doom and anxiety.
In most cases, they don’t realize they are picking up on other people’s emotions rather than their own. Empathic people often don’t realize there is a difference. Looking back, my effectiveness as a nurse was partially the result of being able to “feel” things about patients. Subjective emotions of my patients that others hadn’t yet identified objectively.
For me during this pandemic, my ADHD empathy has been extra acute. Every Spidey sense of mine tuned into and aware of what lies beneath people’s masks.
Often, I feel a sense of not being safe. Not for myself, but from the other person. It’s like trying to make sense of the world with half the puzzle pieces missing or scrambled. My brain searching to make sense of what I am noticing, but with most of our faces covered it is confusing and overwhelming. And I know I can’t fix it for everyone.
My medical expertise knows that wearing a protective face covering is a small thing compared to the potential benefit. It’s just that with my ADHD brain and accompanying empathy, life feels doubly confusing, overwhelming and isolating.
So, what is a person with ADHD to do when empathy is smacked in the face (no pun intended) with the benefit of covering our faces and we feel all the feels?
Following are some ideas that have been useful to me and I hope for you also:
- Begin to be aware of what is your feeling and someone else’s.
- Get plenty of rest. Sleep helps us process all the events and experiences of the day.
- Go out into the world when you know you are well rested and with an emotional reserve.
- Allow yourself to set boundaries for what you will do, verses what you can do.
- Use your ADHD creativity and imagination to create an invisible shield that protects you from the emotions of others.
- Recognize you have choice to allow other’s emotions and experience in or to keep them away.
- Take extra care with self-care and give yourself permission to do what it takes to recharge.
I don’t know when it is going to be a good day or a bad day. As someone with ADHD and a well-developed sense of empathy it often depends on the people I am connecting with and the events of the world.
What I do know is that my ability to relate to others and truly care about who they are is a quality I can use to help make the world a better place. Knowing about ADHD and empathy helps me take care of myself during this pandemic. I hope knowing helps you too.
I’d love to know your thoughts about ADHD and empathy. Let me know be entering your comments below.
And if you’re looking for more information on coping during this pandemic:
- Maintaining Your ADHD Mental Health During a Pandemic
- 9 Biggest Mistakes People Make Having an ADHD Brain